Back to index of Scrabble pages by Donald Sauter.
Please visit the Scrabble For Word Lovers introduction page.

WORD NERD, by John D. Williams Jr.

A Scrabble book report

Sections to this page:


I enjoyed this book immensely.

"Big deal, so what?" you might be thinking.

Well, the "so what?" is that I went into it fully convinced I would hate every page of it. I was actually looking forward to trashing it in a review for Amazon, and I told the librarian that when I checked it out.

Here's the background.

I love Scrabble -- as a word game drawing on nice, big, healthy words from my vocabulary. On the other hand, I'm convinced modern tournament-style Scrabble, based heavily on the smallest, most obscure words in the language and with a distasteful poker-style bluffing component, is "broke". Think, people, how long would crossword puzzles and other word games and activities last if they were based on Scrabble word lists? Not two days.

*** Me and John ***

I was sure Word Nerd would be another glowing paean, like Word Freak before it, to the tournament-style "strategy" game. I had contacted the author several times in the past, and the closest I come to appearing in the book is on page 187, in the list of the types of communications handled by the National Scrabble Association (NSA), specifically, "new ideas for improving SCRABBLE." Yes, I was (still am) naive enough to think the world is big enough for a Scrabble option for "word lovers". (See link at top.)

I emerged from my communications with John convinced that he was what you might call a "stooge" for the tournament players. Notice the irony here. A recurring theme in the book is the lack of trust the players had for John and the NSA. Whew. I assure you guys that John was your Grand Champion and Defender, rigidly programmed to reject or straight-arm any idea deviating in the least from North American, tournament-style Scrabble.

For example, Scrabble News #227 has John blowing off a woman caller fuming over the idiotic word ZITIS (something like NOODLESES, if you're wondering.) John calmly assured her DEERS was good, too, and she could go jump in a... I mean, go and call Merriam-Webster. Which she did. And even the senior editor there couldn't find it in any dictionary. But real Scrabble players can't be bothered with details like that...

My first major experience with John involved trying to get a hearing for Scrabble II For Word Lovers, which is in every way just regular Scrabble using a regular dictionary and opened up to much longer words. I guess I was tenacious enough that John figured he might as well give me a call and get it over with. He came out of his corner swinging. "Oh, I know, you play 'swap for the blank,' don't you? I've heard it all before. There's nothing I haven't heard." Well, no, that's kid's stuff; it's got nothing to do with Scrabble II. (Since then I've come to realize "swap for the blank", suggested by Scrabble itself in 1953, is so right it should have been a box top rule.)

I quickly realized John hadn't thoroughly read my emails or visited my web pages on Scrabble II. At one point he asked, "Do you make nines?" Heck, yeah, John. That's what I'm trying to tell you; here in the Dover Scrabble Club, without a single tournament player or word list studier, we play the longest Scrabble words on the planet. "And who are you? You're not even in the NASPA tournament database!" Well, I'm guessing Alfred Butts, the game's inventor, isn't either. And, apparently, NASPA statistics don't go back to 1987, when I was a "long shot qualifier" for being invited to the national finals. (That miserable tournament experience was my first and last ever, you better believe.) When I asked about the change to the challenge rule which introduced bluffing in 1976, John testily replied, "I don't know; I wasn't director then!" When John charged me with being the only one who objects to the bloated Scrabble word set, I mentioned a certain Scrabble expert. "Well he's a nut!" Things got more frictional and John was moved to hang up on me. Certainly not all his fault, understand.

Then I suppose what happened was, he felt a little bad about our call, and offered to devote one of his Executive Director's Report columns to Scrabble II. Fine by me! But when that appeared, every statement about Scrabble II in it was incorrect in some way or another. At the time I was devastated, although I will admit when I just revisited it, it wasn't so bad, and the inaccuracies which loomed so large in my eyes wouldn't have made any difference to anyone who actually read it. Perhaps my devastation was really rooted in the column just touching on a few of the Scrabble II rule adjustments, not the thrills in store for anyone who gives it a try. Anyhow, please accept a big, belated thanks for the notice, John!

John once wrote a fun column for Scrabble News in which he responded to an interviewer's question he had never heard before, "How many Scrabble games do you own?" I had just worked up my page laying out the evolution of the standard Scrabble set and was excited to invite John to have a look. No response. :-(

In 1999 someone at Hasbro "fixed" the Scrabble box top rules to allow for multiple, unconnected words in the same row in one play(!) No one, of course, has actually read the box top rules since 1953, and I'm the only nut on earth who would catch something like that, but still, a blunder of that magnitude needs to be corrected. I couldn't elicit much more than a "What?" from John, and the goof survived for ten or more years.

So I hope I may be forgiven for thinking that John's sole reason for being was as Grand Protector of modern, North American tournament-style Scrabble, with no brain wave activity left over for anything else. But hold on...

*** John - "one of us"? ***

In Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis poses this question in regard to Scrabble's inventor, "I want to know, in short, if he was one of us." What Stefan means, as I understand it, and if I may put my own spin on it, is, did Alfred Butts envision Scrabble as the sort of checkers-with-alphabet-blocks strategy exercise it would become for a few thousand players several decades down the line? Certainly not, no matter how hard you try to spin it.

Now let me pose the same question with respect to John, and from my own vantage point. I want to know, in short, if John is "one of THEM." All I can conclude, based on my reading of what John has written, is, absolutely, positively, NOT. No way. Although he has excuses for his scant participation in the tournament scene -- other obligations at the events, 45 minutes from a club, wanting weekends to chill -- they couldn't have stymied anyone athirst for the modern Scrabble "strategy game."

In some places, John is very explicit about this. On page 50 he comes right out and admits, "With the exception of my first tournament, I never took studying words very seriously." No, that can't be "one of them".

On page 45 he says, "The whole issue of playing phonies is both nuanced and controversial." In my never-ending campaign to get Scrabble back to "good words only", I can't think of a single instance of sympathy from a tournament player. So I have to believe that John calling phonies "controversial" here is an indication of his own true, inner aversion to this aspect of the tournament game.

On page 131 John sounds very much in tune with living room players when he says, "It was my opinion at the time that most NSA players--and casual players at home--felt there were too many words already." This sounds something like me when I argue, if a regular college dictionary already goes way beyond the working vocabulary of even the most "wordy" person, why on earth would anybody need or want to go further out than that?

And I was surprised to see tournament players pulled in there because I could have sworn this was the slimmest of minority positions among them. Was John projecting his distaste for the bloated Scrabble word set on NSA players as well? (Am I projecting mine on John?) It's a darn shame the "one question" in his survey didn't include the third option: "Did members want the expanded dictionary, or were they happy with things as they were," or 3) did they want a more sensible and refined word set?

On page 132 John really starts to sound like me: "For me personally, [the World Scrabble word set] would just be adding another [40,000] words to the sixty or seventy thousand I already didn't know." Of course, John is much more diplomatic than I, and omits such descriptors as "absurd", "ridiculous", "idiotic", etc. On page 18 he did refer to the "crazy stuff" on tournament boards.

Admittedly, John does sound like a polite version of "one of them" when he tells a caller, "With all due respect, just because you never heard of it does not mean it's not a real word." Sure, anything is word. Lexicographers say there are millions, and I will argue that's only the tip of an iceberg. Again, I ask, how far out there into the realm of obscure words do we need to go? I'll bet the aggrieved caller couldn't even find the word in his trusty dictionary.

But I claim John shows much more sympathy than you'd expect from "one of them" when addressing specific cases that bother word lovers: cheap interjections, foreign words, and, more specifically, foreign currency. And while he's obligated to defend all these Scrabble words to the teeth, his discussion of specific cases suggests he has even less of a grip on familiar, little Scrabble words than you'd expect from "one of them" -- who are already infamous for not giving a hoot about meanings. I give specific examples in my page-by-page comments further down.

Likewise, in his discussion of the removal of offensive words for the off-the-shelf OSPD, I claim John shows more sympathy than you'd expect from "one of them". Reviews of Word Nerd had me expecting a good dose of merry-making over comical old fossils who would rather play the game without offensive words, even at the detriment of maybe .002 points per turn in their scoring, oh my.

What is it about Scrabble and the need for "bad words"? Does anyone remember an outcry over Password not using bad words? Even now, in our enlightened times, is there any campaign for bad words in crossword puzzles, or Jeopardy categories, or on the Wheel Of Fortune, etc., etc.? Never mind that Scrabble has always been naturally bound up with Grandma, apple pie, and everything good and old-fashioned, to start with.

So, thanks, John, for your part in producing an OSPD without the offensive and vulgar words. I use it as the authority for their acceptability since regular dictionaries are becoming ever more nonjudgmental. (Nothing is "obscene" now, and "vulgar" is becoming "sometimes vulgar".) Not that the need arises more than once in a blue moon... And, no, I didn't flip right to the back to see the list, and, in fact, never stumbled on those pages at all. It's been a long time since I was nine, not that I remember tee-heeing over naughty words back then, either.

*** School Scrabble ***

Another scuffle John and I had was over School Scrabble. Whose heart could not be warmed by John's chapters on that subject? Mine certainly was. But, but, but...

If you've been paying attention, you know my aversion to modern Scrabble based on odd little words and bluffing. But, hey, if that's what consenting experts want, I wouldn't take it away from them. (I suspect they'd convert over of their own accord should a more thoughtful and challenging "word game" Scrabble option ever be made available.) But I view foisting the full-blown expert game on school children as a high crime.

Fifth graders do NOT need to learn that the only English Q-words are QI, QAT, or, in a terrible pinch, QAID or QADI. They should NOT be wasting brain space on DOX, EME, MEM, MIB, NOM, OBE, OHA, TAE, ULU, VAR, VAU, VIG, WUD, AA, AE, BA, JO, KA, KI, NA, OE (Table 1 words from 2011) and bushels of other Scrabble "game pieces" they will never encounter in real life, when there are tens of thousands of life-enhancing words yet to learn. My understanding is that today's student has a vocabulary about half as big as that of his counterpart from the 1950s.

And they do NOT need to learn that bluffing your fellow man is the good and proper way to get through life. Yes, that's a personal opinion, and I've heard it expressed that this is actually the most valuable thing Scrabble has to offer young people. To the credit of the NSA, they do show some sense of the wrongfulness of kids hoodwinking each other at the Scrabble board.

Because of it, John tells us, they made a rule change, putting a ceiling on the margin of victory to slightly counteract the big rewards of throwing down phony words. Ok, but wouldn't the perfect, and very simple, solution be to only award points for an acceptable play? That would put Scrabble in line with virtually all other games and sports. And it wouldn't even involve a rule change, just a restoration of the original challenge rule which worked just fine for Scrabble's first quarter of a century. Again, I point out that no one knows, or will say, who was responsible for changing the challenge rule in 1976. And I defy you to find any written account of a phony word being played that is not accompanied with at least a tinge of shame or embarrassment. It doesn't have to be this way, folks.

In 2011 the School Scrabble champions won $10,000 at least in part by playing a phony word, CARNATE, in the championship round. Ten thousand dollars. I had to act fast, but I got a letter off to Jimmy Kimmel before his show with the kids. When John showed up at the studio, I imagine Jimmy waving my note in a mild state of perplexity:

Re: Sqool Sqrabble, the National Mispelling Bee and Pokerfest for Qids

Dear Jimmy,

$10,000 for making up CARNATE???

The trash Scrabble played at the National School Scrabble Championship took a long-overdue and well-deserved beating in the press and among the public this year.

Besides the game-winning CARNATE, here are some other eyeball-rollers played in the 8 featured tournament games: BESEIGES ENTOLLED INGESTER NOTATERS OUTGAENS AURIATE DEMOTER GRIEFED ABOUTS BIRON

And don't forget the wonderful Q-words played in those games: QADI QAT QAT QAT QUA QIS QI QI QI

And these fine beauties no one can live without: AA AE AL BA DE JO KA KI MO NA NE OE OI ZA

Maybe you could have some fun with School Scrabble as vocabulary and character builder?

Thanks.

Donald Sauter

I think the note had an effect; that if the 2011 episode with Jimmy Kimmel is still on YouTube, you'll detect something of a pall hanging over the proceedings. I believe everyone was sweating bricks over the kids playing a bogus word on national tv. Jimmy himself brought up phony words a few times.

Actually, I know the note had an effect. A few days later I got an email from John telling me how I had "jeopardized Hasbro's and the NSA's relationship with the Jimmy Kimmel Show." John sent my letter to the Hasbro legal department and enjoined me from "contacting Hasbro, the NSA, the Jimmy Kimmel Show or the young NSSC Champions again." With impressive equanimity, I replied:

Hi John,

There's a simple solution to all of this which makes everyone a winner, Hasbro most of all.

Hasbro gives its backing to a Scrabble II game site; I call the dogs off modern tournament-style Scrabble.

Donald

No, they didn't take me up on this eminently fair and square deal. The world still has no option for a longer, more natural word Scrabble. And in 2012 the School Scrabble champions won $10,000 with the phony bingo ROTUNDER. And in 2013 the champs won $10,000 with the phony bingo ELOPEES. An examination of the eight featured game boards in 2013 shows that more than a third of the words would be flagged in MS Word.

So, John, there's no question your heart was in the right place, but saddling school children with the expert game??? Would you start young ball players off on a 90-mph pitching machine?

*** A couple of shockers ***

There were two spots in the book that stopped me dead in my tracks. John discusses (p96) the battle between Maven, a Scrabble computer program, and two human players. He recalls one of "the most amazing plays I've ever seen." I'm thinking, wow, this is going to be good! Maven plays TIRAMISU, and I'm wild with anticipation of the incredible play the humans will come storming back with. But that was it! John was referring to Maven's TIRAMISU! John, we've played TIRAMISU in the Dover Scrabble Club. And we're not even computers. You can see it about 4900 lines down in my page of all the words we've ever played, nestled in the eights somewhere between TINNITUS and TITULARY. Wow, I had no idea of the extent to which Scrabble players are starved for real words. John, I swear, we've got to get together and play Scrabble as a "word game" sometime!

The other spot (p158) was where John tells of Joe Edley's conviction that "an anagramming-based game could someday be as popular as Scrabble [or] Monopoly." Say what? Things have fallen so low that Scrabble players don't even think of Scrabble as an anagramming game at all??? I know the 7-tile rack and the basic dump-dump-dump-dump-dump-dump-BINGO strategy don't really let you spread your wings, and the average Scrabble word is about 3.5 letters long, but surely there are good and satisfying finds now and then? (See the Scrabble For Word Lovers link at the top for an introduction to Scrabble as a wonderful anagramming-based game.)

The other thing about this that threw me for a loop is that it was Joe Edley himself calling for an anagram game. I once sent Joe a photo of a Dover Scrabble Club board streaked with long words, and he wrote back that he "would find that game very boring without all of the twos and the strategy required for the current regular game."

So, if there's been a change of heart, Joe, please let's get together for some Scrabble For Word Lovers! Bring along John and Stefan. The same deal goes as back in John's Scrabble News article on Scrabble II: a five dollar pot to the winner (while supplies last.) To hone up, here's a puzzle from a recent Scrabble III game. After two plays the words on the board were ANGULAR and HERPES, sharing the R on the middle star square. The rack was ESIPNABE. Go!

*** Modern dictionaries ***

I was expecting the chapter on "How a Word Gets into the Dictionary" to get my blood boiling. I deplore the dictionary makers' shift, starting back in the 1960s, from word use "prescription" to "description". I feel the word authorities should help us to use words properly, as experts in any other field would be glad to help us get things right in their field.

John Morse, president of Merriam-Webster, explained the modern mindset to Scrabble News (Apr 2010): "A more serious misconception is that we can influence the way the language develops. The fact is that speakers of the English language are fiercely independent and will use the language in whatever way seems best to them. All we do is report back on that behavior..." Get the picture? -- a scrunched shoulders, palms up, dumb smile, "What us worry? You burp it; we print it!"

But the process described in Word Nerd doesn't sound quite as bleak as Morse paints it. It appears a bit of thought goes into it before a new word makes the grade. After all, they still haven't opened up to "alot", "inspite", "sieze", "wierd", "could of", "lead" as the past tense of "lead", and countless more, in spite of what must be millions of citations by now. Heck, type "wolrd" into Google News if you want to see some "fierce independence"! So even though they won't admit it, the dictionaries do do more than simply "report back on behavior." And though I might like a longer incubation period, and would put new words to the vote of a panel of notable men and women of letters, I've been somewhat mollified.

John (our author) discusses our changing language. He says that it's "a living, breathing entity and that words... are going to change over time. As well they should. Otherwise, we'd all be walking around talking like characters from Beowulf." I wouldn't argue that. Yes, a lot has happened in the last 1300 years (including a few hundred years of official French in Britain.) But I think putting it like that vastly exaggerates the changes you'd notice over decades, or a lifetime, or even a couple hundred years. Yes, Shakespeare's English is borderline foreign to the modern English speaker, but Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850) and O. Henry (1910) sound just like us, albeit a tad more erudite.

I have a web page examining the "4000 new words" added to the 2005 Scrabble dictionary. But almost all of these "new" words are just the formatives of existing words taking on the related noun, verb or adjective definition, or new compound words or clippings. Big whoop. I see it as just an unchecked "oozing" of the language. You'd be astounded at the miniscule number of fresh, out-of-the-blue, truly new words among the 4000, especially with about a decade of technological advancement and subculture incubation since the previous round of dictionaries. Still, I'd vote for the dictionary makers taking a stand against this language ooze. Instead of bloating your files with a citation of a new usage, how about shooting the offender a correction slip? And I have to ask, "Really, now, Mr. Morse, how many zas did you all see on the front page of the New York Times?"

*** Page-by-page comments ***

Page 18. John says the basic rule for foreign words is that we might adopt them if there is no English equivalent. Regarding his examples, I doubt he ever got a call complaining about TACO or CROISSANT, and his other examples, ADIOS, CIAO and AMIGO, contradict his stated guideline.

He also gives SI as an example, but SI is not in our dictionaries as the Spanish word (we have a pretty good word for "yes"), rather as the seventh note of the scale. (TI is an alternative to SI, by the way, not the other way around. Some music dictionaries don't even show TI.)

JIAO is not an alternative spelling for the Italian CIAO, but a Chinese unit of currency (also spelled CHIAO, which may account for John's confusion.)

John notes that, "Foreign currency tends to annoy people the most." I find non-Western units of measure of ANYTHING well over the horizon of basic American English. We have our own units, for goodness' sake. If dictionaries want to include them with a "foreign" label, fine by me, and welcome, but that would involve judgment, which scares the bejabbers out of modern dictionary makers.

John's two examples of annoying foreign currency, the XU and ZAIRE, are both out of use now, by the way. And I think you'll find the "some reason" XU does not take an S is that xu is the plural for xu, sort of like sheep for sheep and jiao for jiao.

John sticks up for the most annoying interjections, including MM, HM, HMM, BRR, and BRRR, implying they're all over Ogden Nash. Hmmmmmm? This sent me to the two dozen Ogden Nash poems in my collection, and I could find nary a one. (By the way, do these words really count as "onomatopoetic"?)

Twice on this page, John expresses bafflement at people's annoyance with far-fetched words in spite of them being "extremely playable" and "extremely valuable Scrabble words." Now might that be precisely the reason why they are so annoying to so many people who just want to sit down and play a nice American English word game? These screwy little words from beyond the pale will often be the biggest factor in the outcome of the game. I'll hazard a guess that the complaints the NSA received about LI were the tiniest fraction of those for XU.

Page 19. Admittedly, John is limited in the time or space he can devote to new technology and slang words to support his case for a vibrant, growing language, but the few examples he does give seem so unimpressive that one might almost be led to the opposite view. Some go back decades (MOOLAH, BYTE, AWOL); COZ goes back to at least Shakespeare's time -- kind of hard for me to view Shakespeare as slang! (By the way, it meant any sort of relation.) And I'll put my money on PHAT and CHILLAX (whatever they are) fizzling out before the American public starts using them. Even the gushing discussion of "catfish" as a new synonym for "impostor" (p23) leaves me thinking, if this is an uplifting example of the wondrous growth of our language, would somebody please bar the door! (By the way, a bit of web searching casts major doubts on the claimed practice of dumping catfish in vats of cod for shipping. And there's some suspicion that the Catfish "documentary" itself was a work of pure fiction.)

While we're on the subject, and if anyone is listening, the language has always needed an antonym for "steep". Let me nominate "stallow", as in deep-shallow/steep-stallow. Now you can end your novel, "...and they walked hand in hand down the stallow, wooded path to their cozy cabin by the lake."

Page 25. I hope I'm not alone in thinking that bringing registered trademarks into tournament Scrabble is wildly inappropriate. Do they really want to overturn the basic, and essential, rule of the game disallowing proper nouns for the sake of a few dozen more words? And I'm very disappointed that Merriam-Webster allows itself to be strong-armed by Scrabble players. Actually, I think Merriam-Webster should be ashamed of itself for publishing the OSPD with thousands upon thousands of words they wouldn't see fit for their own dictionary. Shouldn't that be grounds for a dictionary company having its license revoked?

Page 30. "The ADL quickly fired off a letter to Alan Hassenfeld, chairman and CEO of Hasbro at the time..."

Aha, still in the family. That's Hassenfeld as in "Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc.; Pawtucket, R. I.", according to my old Pencil Craft Painting set.

My efforts to get Hasbro's attention directly eventually resulted in a phone call from their Head of Global Games Acquisition. But he, too, had not read my pages on Scrabble II. (I grew frantic with him wanting to talk about my Beatles pages!) The only thing that seemed to register with him was the random scoop of 100 tiles from a mixed set of 300 tiles. I did that to make every game fresh and different; because I was bored to tears with the same old tile distribution game after game. But all the Hasbro rep saw was, "I see you've done away with tile tracking." No, that wasn't the point. (In fact, it would make the probability calculations even more fun for the experts!) He concluded, "I do not think we are going to change Scrabble." No, I never said a word about changing any of the manifold forms of Scrabble already in existence, just providing an option for word lovers. And he assured me that just getting a call from Hasbro was something to be proud of. Wow, how to make a grown man want to cry...

Page 31. "Worse, for me, was that [expunging "despicable" words from the OSPD] pitted my job requirements against my strong personal belief in free speech. Ah, the classic American dilemma, choosing between one's job and the Constitution."

So much handwringing, over nothing. I assure you, John, that the free speech business in the Constitution is there to protect us from an overreaching government. A mother is not going to be hauled off to the gulag for telling her daughter not to say, "Shut up!" And, if you think about it, "free speech" also protects speech that doesn't offend. A dictionary maker doesn't have to worry about being hauled before the Supreme Court for passing over this or that word.

Page 32. "We learn early in life that all words do in fact have meaning and, at times, the attendant power."

Nicely stated; thanks. I believe that this is an expression of John's true feelings, even though he feels obligated to show himself fully enlightened on the matter, as expressed two pages earlier: "It's naive to assume that if a word is removed from any dictionary, it's going to disappear from the language or conversation." If you were sincere about that, John, you would have replaced 7 words with 6 trim letters in this sentence (p31): "However, there was a rush to judgment because the word sounded like what we refer to as the N-word."

Page 33. "It goes without saying, the editors at Merriam-Webster were appalled that we were even doing this."

That's rather hard to swallow. At that time, the early 1990s, the major dictionaries had only themselves been including "obscenities" for a decade or so. And they could honestly claim they saw nothing a little funny about fifth-graders playing School Scrabble with offensive words leaping off a quarter of the pages of the OSPD? When it would never cross their minds to include such words in their own children's dictionaries? And I'm guessing they still don't, even with 25 further years of progress beating back the dark forces of civility.

Page 35. "I began to receive letters and calls from all over the world [regarding the removal of "offensive" words from the OSPD.]"

If those six examples represent the worst of this tempest, it didn't even need a teapot; a teaspoon would do. Assuming they're not all tongue-in-cheek, notice that at least 5 of the 6 asked for MORE words to be removed (WELSH, GYP, PADDYWAGON, HISTORY, WAR, and GUN), turning the general point of the chapter--that anyone can see how silly this censorship stuff is--on its head.

Page 36. "Which ones?"

For the second time (see page 30), John raises this deep question regarding which bad words to remove from the OSPD. And again, I say, so much handwringing over nothing. Remove the obvious ones, and do the best you can with the borderline cases. Just because there's a fuzzy area between killing in self defense and killing in cold blood doesn't mean you throw up your hands and say, "Anything goes!"

Page 38. "[Joe Edley's] tai chi exercises between rounds were legendary."

John, you blew it! You could have used "qi" in running text in a major American publication! You could have made tens of thousands, nay, millions, of Scrabble players' lives complete! But, noooooo... All right, everybody, back to your lookout posts...

Page 38. "Look at those spots [on the Scrabble board] from both an offensive and defensive point of view."

I'm convinced Scrabble is almost completely, 100 percent, offense. Scrabble is akin to bowling and golf, where players do their thing independently on the same course. The Scrabble board is filled with land mines in every direction, and to imagine you can shut your opponent down is folly. And it's absurd to think you can win Scrabble games by throwing away points turn after turn, always trying to stymie your opponent.

"If [your play] sets up your opponent for a big play it may not be worth it."

With all the tile-tracking in the world, you can't know what's in your opponent's rack until the bag is empty. You're far better off spending your time playing your own rack. And you might be the one to cash in on that setup.

"It may make sense to block [a dangerous opening] with even a modest-scoring word."

So after you block it with a "modest" 12-point play, your opponent goes somewhere else with a slightly less sickly 18-point play? If you want to win, I highly recommend scoring points. I haven't read "Everything Scrabble", so I don't know if this advice is in there, or if it's ever occurred to anyone, but the thing to do when you can't capitalize on an open triple word score, for example, is to open up another one. Then on your next turn you'll have one, maybe both, available for yourself.

There is simply no way any Scrabble expert got where he is by playing like a scared mouse. Read about Brian Cappelletto's aggressive, wide-open play on page 87. Marlon Hill goes to town (in very colorful language) on the subject in Word Freak. And Word Freak tells us that studies with the Maven program show there is virtually "no penalty for openness."

So what keeps this "defense" canard alive with Scrabble players? My best theory has to do with some inner need to see the Scrabble "sport" lumped together with football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, boxing, etc.

Page 40. "[FUNGOES] was good, and even better, Joe challenged it!"

Methinks John's memory wires might be crossed here. Even if Joe Edley was not a baseball fan, and even if FUNGO somehow fell through the cracks of his Scrabble word studies, he would have seen other players playing it over the decades. But stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Page 42. "Had I been able to enter this event in disguise with an alternative identity, that would have been fine with me."

John! Here, you could have nonchalantly worked in "catfish"!

Page 49. "I now had a tournament rating of 1554."

Ratings pop up here and elsewhere in the book, as they did throughout Word Freak, and there's no evidence in either case that the author could explain how ratings are calculated. I say deep-six the voodoo rating system and switch to the player's average Points Per Turn (PPT) production. That one little, simple, perfectly easy-to-understand statistic says it all about a player's skill level. If you can eke out a fraction more of a point per turn than anyone else, game after game, then you are the No. 1 player.

Page 65. "The British had had the language far longer than North Americans, so it stood to reason the [British] word source would contain a lot more words."

Hmmm, I don't think I buy that reasoning. We were using the same language when we split a few hundred years ago, and ever since then, while they've been maintaining their stiff upper lip, we've been inflicting our good, old American "fierce independence" on the language. The reason their Scrabble dictionary is so much bigger than ours is that it was based on the Chambers Dictionary, which "contains many more dialectal, archaic, unconventional and eccentric words than its rivals." (Wikipedia) I've heard Chambers described as actually being more akin to an encyclopedia. Even with all the faults of the OSPD, you can thank the Good Scrabble Faerie you were born in North America!

Page 94. "Scrabble is, by most accounts, 15 percent luck."

This intrigues me. For one thing, I've seen other figures, such as 15-30 percent (Word Freak, page 37). For another, it seems so elusive. There must be a fairly simple way to think of how Scrabble's luck factor will show up in win-loss statistics, but I can't wrap my brain around it. It would have to infuse a formula which yields the probability of a player who averages N points per turn beating a player who averages M points per turn (PPT). That should be fun for someone to work up.

Page 96. "Maven, for her part, remained predictably nonplussed."

Huh, what? Maven, the cold-blooded computer, remained predictably "perplexed and bewildered"??? This sent me to my dictionaries to see if I had gone crazy somewhere along the line. All six of them define "nonplussed" in the same, old-fashioned way. But to be sure, I plugged "nonplussed" into Google, and, lo and behold, it throws the opposite definition back in your face along right with the correct one! Man, electrons are just too darn cheap.

Looking further into this, here's what appears to have happened. While no American dictionaries define "nonplussed" in this opposite sense, some hoity-toity British dictionary found a few Americans who don't know what they're talking about, and had fun adding the flipped definition as a dig at moronic Americans. They label the cool, calm and collected "unperturbed" definition as "NORTH AMERICAN informal." Gee, thanks. If you dig a little further you will find this definition labeled "non-standard" in the fine print, and "non-standard" is dictionary-ese for, "Ain't really a word, folks!" But the damage has been done. John, PLEEEEEEASE get this corrected by the second printing!

This all ties in with John's musings on misused English and the Grammar Police back in the second chapter. Yes, IRREGARDLESS may be "in [the] dictionary" now (p8), but being "in the dictionary" nowadays does not necessarily imply the word has the dictionary's imprimatur. You'll see IRREGARDLESS is also assigned to the untouchable caste, "Non-standard". Toxic Waste! Keep Out!

There were a few other spots where either I was missing something, or John had flipped a meaning. Regarding Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" quote (p22), John writes, "While we should probably take the statement at face value, there are others who feel that the late Pop artist was a media visionary." Should that be, "take the statement with a grain of salt"?

"As for the Hasbro side of things, it's hard for me to say. Figuratively, it's hard to say because I haven't spoken to a Hasbro person since..." (p194) Should that be, "Literally, it's hard to say..."?

There were a couple of instances of "is comprised of" being used where conventionally correct usage calls for "is composed of", or more directly, "comprises". The whole comprises the parts. The backwards usage is becoming ever more accepted (cuz dictionary makers doan wanna git involved), but I'm surprised the grammar nazis in John's family never nailed him on it. On page 13 we read, "The Scrabble Brand Crossword Game, Inc., unit was comprised of a company secretary with a couple of assistants." On page 39 we read, "A good Scrabble move is comprised of two parts..."

On page 37 John says, "I had to become a credible tournament player..." A check of the dictionary seems to confirm my suspicion that John meant to say "creditable" (deserving praise or credit), not "credible" (offering reasonable grounds for being believed).

Poor, hypothetical Brenda (p10) is confronted with misusing the words LIE, LAY, and LAIN. Actually, I'll bet it's LAID she massacres, like everyone else. Nobody says "lain"; not even people who know what it means!

And I had trouble with a passage I'd really like to understand (p169): "So let's agree that, despite disturbing conclusions, we'll throw out the statistical evidence regarding male supremacy across the Scrabble board. How else could one explain it?" Is that, "throw out the window...", or "throw out on the table...", or what?

Page 116. "Scores of colorfully decorated... hoodies bore the name... of each team."

Colorfully decorated "gray crows of Europe"? :-) Admittedly, none of my dictionaries are right up to the minute, but hoodie as an article of clothing hasn't made any of them, and I hope that's because dictionary makers agree with me that cheap, informal "-ie" constructs are definitely third-class citizens in the word world. Dictionaries don't even have CIGGIE, which has been around forever, and that is as it should be. (But a cringe-inducing -ie word for "self-photo" comes along and dictionary makers can't gobble it up fast enough??? Yuck.)

PICTURE of MULLiGATAWNY board.

This got me wondering how often we make a 12-letter word in Scrabble III. It's about one every 13 games. Twelves are good for you.

PICTURE of "Highest game score ever!"

Keep in mind that a single play, QUIXOTRY, contributed 365 of the 830 points. That's 44 percent of the total. And a word fan might have fun looking for these beauties in his trusty dictionary: VROW VROWS AWA COR KAS RAX NAM ES OM OP ZA ZAS. Scrabble... what a funny word game!

By the way, when Scrabble people come to realize that, for a triple-triple word play a literal interpretation of the premium word squares actually calls for two triple word scores, and thus a 2x3=6 multiplier, and not the wildly out of balance, piggy-backed, 3x3=9 multiplier, then the score of this game will be recalculated as 662-490.

Page 134. "The loser [of Chris and David's do-or-die game], through the nuances of the pairing system, would automatically drop as low as sixth place."

"Nuances" should have no place in the final standings of any Scrabble tournament. It should be a simple matter of, everybody plays everybody, insofar as is possible, with pairings devised so that at the end of the tournament, all of your opponents average out to the "average player", as determined by final PPTs (average Points Per Turn scored.) Tournament ranking is determined by winning percentage first, and then final PPT separating out identical winning percentages.

Page 140. "...I'd read the screenplay for Hasbro to make sure that Scrabble was portrayed accurately and that there was no prurient content or violence involving a Scrabble board, tiles, or other icons of the game."

Why, John, such prudishness! You let this slip right by without pausing to delve the profound question, "I mean, what is, really, after all, you know, prurient, I mean?" Are you naive enough to think that if Scrabble is removed from any prurient movie scene, prurience is going to disappear from our society? :-) (See page 30.) But if it were a family film with a Scrabble board filling the screen every few minutes loaded with words from the "notorious word list", that'd be sticking up for free speech, heeheehee?

Page 159. "The average living room game can last twice as long, depending on the number of players..."

I would choose 3- and 4-person games any day of the week -- Scrabble plus sociableness -- so I've had decades of experience observing this, and I can assure everyone that the more players, the faster the game (with exceptions, of course.) Think about it; you will have had a bit longer to think about your play by the time your turn comes, so after a quick examination of the play just before yours, you can throw down the play you already had in mind. And the board will generally be more wide open since there is even less reason for concern, if there is any to begin with (see page 38 discussion), about leaving openings. Who knows who will take it? It might be a player who's out of the running. (Or, it might be you.)

Page 160. "While insignificant to most Americans, [a change in Babe Ruth's home run total would be] as exciting to [baseball statisticians] as the admission of QI to North American Scrabble was to me. I get it."

Hmmm, I'm not sure I do. I think the proper baseball analogy to adding QI to Scrabble would be bringing the right field fence in to about 80 feet. And I don't doubt most of the calls John received about QI were all very excited, indeed, but maybe in a way diametrically opposite to his own exuberance?

Page 168. "That leaves the math-based skill set to determine superiority, which means having the ability to assess probability of tile possibilities."

I agree fully that superior Scrabble involves superior math acuity. Heck, I claim that, all else being equal, the person with the superior math brain will outperform his opponent in anything you can think of. (Schools take note: a well-tuned math mind is a well-tuned mind, period.) But I think overmuch is made of experts calculating specific probabilities of this or that event. Sure, when all the D's are gone, you can forget DOODAD. P(DOODAD)=0, as they say. Even if a player is only fishing for a certain letter for a certain word -- which would indicate about the lowest level of living room strategy imaginable -- the probability calculation would be very difficult. For anything more complicated than that, the formulation of the probability would be hideous, never mind cranking the actual value.

"There are 12 E's in the game; if seven have been played and there are only 22 tiles left [in the bag], what are the odds your opponent has a vital E, or even 2 of them?"

Ok, if you really want to know...

Assume your opponent had just bingoed and drawn 7 random tiles from a bag of 29 tiles including 5 E's. Here is the probability that he drew exactly 1 E. (For combination notation, let 29c7 = "the combination of 29 things taken 7 at a time.")

P(one E) = 5c1 x 24c6 / 29c7
P(one E) = (5!/4!/1!) x (24!/18!/6!) / (29!/22!/7!)
P(one E) = (5x22x21x20x19x7) / (29x28x27x26x25)
P(one E) = .4312

The probability that he drew exactly 2 E's is:

P(two E's) = 5c2 x 24c5 / 29c7
P(two E's) = (5!/3!/2!) x (24!/19!/5!) / (29!/22!/7!)
P(two E's) = (5x4x22x21x20x7x6) / (2x29x28x27x26x25)
P(two E's) = .2723

Did you get the same answer? And now it's on to the A's, R's, S's, T's...! Or, maybe, is it time to start playing your own rack?

I think it's the "math mind" that runs through more playing possibilities; gives a heightened feel for how well letter combinations work together; and helps determine how many points you are willing to forego now in the expectation of greater, future points. In any case, an interesting experiment would be to blow a whistle at an unexpected moment in a major tournament, and have every player jot down the probability he's just worked up in his mind for a certain outcome. I'm guessing all the slips would be blank.

Page 171. "[Robin Pollock] jumped from a 1544 rating to a 1750 rating in one tournament!"

Just tell me how much Robin's Points Per Turn (PPT) production rose in the tournament. See page 49 discussion. I'll bet dollars to buttons that Robin was very much the same player before and after that tournament, and the fluctuating (voodoo) rating system was still trying to settle in on her.

Page 174. "As of June 2014, only thirteen tournament players were rated 2000 or above."

Ok, ok, let's agree that "2000" has some sanctified meaning beyond the grasp of mere mortals, can I see a list of their PPTs anyhow?

Page 176. "[Lisa's favorite play] was the word GOLGOTHA."

Pretty cool, but is that so much better than ANARCHIC, KARAOKE, TYMPANI, POWWOWS, COPYISTS, etc., which we played just last night?

Page 190. Regarding the official Scrabble program by the Electronic Arts company, I feel John's pain; EA's "tiping chymp" Scrabble isn't even a game. But I strongly suspect that internet Scrabble programs (including the ripoffs), which won't even let you play an invalid word, were designed that way in reaction to the distasteful, modern bluff game. (Hint to programmers: "Points for valid words only!")

*** Wrap-up ***

To wrap up, let me reiterate, I enjoyed this book immensely, and as much or more the second time through. If most of what I've written here is in the mode of taking exception to passages here and there, well, I can't thank John enough for providing me the launching pads to jump up on my own soap boxes. I hope some of my thoughts can themselves survive close scrutiny. And if I rambled on about everything I found interesting or touching or surprising or funny or entertaining, this book report would be many times longer -- and who would care, anyway? I have to put in, though, that John's account of his Scrabble tournament experience and grand march on "expert" status is a classic.

John, "living room players" like me and you need to stick together!

Donald Sauter

 
P.S. If you'd like to respond to any of this, you might do so on Amazon. You can find an abridged version of this "review" there. And if anything I've said here regarding the wonders of Scrabble played as a word game has piqued the curiosity of anyone of stature in the Scrabble world, please, please, PLEASE, get in touch. Thanks!

 

APPENDIX 1 - Discussion with a Scrabble expert

A member of the NASPA facebook group looked into my Word Nerd book report and sent me his thoughts.

fb = NASPA facebook group member.
ds = me (Donald Sauter)

fb> I'll be the first to admit [tournament Scrabble] is not really a word game, but if it was I wouldn't be playing because I have zero interest in word definitions.

ds> But a lot of people think words and language are fun. Many more people do crossword puzzles, for instance, than play Scrabble. Here are a few words we've played in recent sessions, and not just the longest ones: IMPROPRIETIES NONREFUNDABLE SITUATIONALLY DESPAIRINGLY AUTOGRAPHED FREQUENTLY GORGEOUSLY BREWERIES CARPENTRY CHILDLESS COMICALLY IDOLISING INEBRIATE MORTGAGEE UNTIDYING ANTIPHON BETHINKS BUSTIERS CAREFREE CASTANET EUPHONIC GUNWALES HANGOVER KINGLIER TOXICITY UNMANNED ACACIAS LITURGY. Surely, the vast majority of Scrabble players would get a bigger thrill out of that than _____ (fill in the blank with words from your Scrabble word lists.)

fb> Maybe we're playing with arcane gobbledy-gook, but we are thinking on a much deeper level than you suggest, and many top players are very good at other games (such as poker, chess, bridge, backgammon, etc.) as well.

ds> And they'd be fantastic at any of the games in the Scrabble For Word Lovers suite. I am aching to play you!

fb> It actually doesn't take much thinking at all to pull a big word out of a mess of letters at the high levels: people just alphagram and memorize

ds> But it takes all the thinking in the world to consistently pull out a better big word then everyone else.

Understand that an extra tile on the rack increases the permutations by a factor of 8. On top of that is much livelier use of more blanks. At first blush that may sound cheap to players used to two single-use blanks. But consider that a blank requires 26 times as much thinking as the other letter tiles. I would say, blanks are where the thinking starts in Scrabble! (And don't forget that Scrabble itself suggested "swap for the blank" back in 1953.) And on top of that is an extended board with many, many more open letters to play through than the on classic board clogged with short words. And on top of that, we play in the realm of word lengths that no one on earth has memorized.

fb> and you'll always have programs such as Lexpert and Zyzzyva as long as a competitive scene exists.

ds> No, the word set for Scrabble For Word Lovers will never be made available in print or electronic form. If you can't give it the same trust you've given to all the other dictionaries you've consulted in your life, you can stick to your word list game.

fb> You'd get a much more positive response if you market it as a separate game to people who already love Scrabble: people get turned off otherwise

ds> Yes, the Scrabble For Word Lovers suite is a separate set of games from modern Scrabble. No one would be forced to migrate over. Some people might play both, no problem.

fb> you should create a new board though, and maybe slightly different tile distributions and different rules and make it a new board game. Game play wise for what you're going for, you need 8 or 9 tile racks,

ds> Done, done, done, and done. Except for the 9 tile rack. Eight tiles are optimal for Scrabble, which I'm sure analyses could confirm. Once I experimented with a 12-tile rack described in a Scrabble News article by Joe Edley, and I could do hardly better than with 8 tiles. The board is extended; the letter distribution in the 300 tile set is a wonder to behold; and the rules include new bonuses for playing big words and stretching big words into bigger words, etc.

fb> but you can't have a board where you can open for a double-triple for example

ds> We can and do. You don't know how explosive Scrabbles II and III are. An 8-tile opener is a blast, but not a clincher; far from it. A good player averages over 50 points per turn; I'm guessing Scrabble experts could get up around 60. (By the way, if you believe in defensive playing, you would never open with a double-triple because that opens up four triple word scores, yee-ha!)

fb> if you're taking away XI/XU the X is a bad tile now,

ds> For a start, AX EX OX and XI leave the X trivially easy to use in conventional Scrabble. (The Greek letters stay. Most of them have uses other than simply as words for letters. I remember seeing xi in both calculus and physics. Don't ask me what for right now, haha.)

But that's beside the point since Scrabble For Word Lovers all have at least a 3-letter minimum requirement. You'll have to use your brain and do something more than AX EX OX and XI with your X. (And see what you can do with the JQXZ in Scrabble III For BIG Word Lovers!)

fb> and the Q is extremely awful

ds> Yeah? Take a look at all the Q-words played in the Dover Scrabble Club, up through early this year.

fb> I mean don't market to the tournament players, market to the masses

ds> The only entity I'm trying to "market" Scrabble For Word Lovers to is Hasbro. They can have Scrabbles O, I and II for free, and their fair share of Scrabble III. And I have no intention of excluding anyone who wants to play.

fb> a word game like you want to create will never be played competitively,

ds> Even for millions of dollars? Imagine the prize money when the champions are distilled from a field of tens of millions of players, rather than a couple thousand. And if you don't care about money, you'd still be a famous celebrity.

fb> we'll do all sorts of things to your game that you'll hate, that ruins the spirit of your game

ds> You won't have that option. You'll play Scrabble For Word Lovers to my exact specifications, or stick with the conventional game. Understand that it would be absolutely absurd to play Scrabble For Word Lovers, with all of its adjustments meant to vault you into the realm of big, healthy words, with a Scrabble word set bursting at the seams with tiny, weird words.

fb> just focus on making a fun game that people will want to play, and focus on making it appeal to non-competitive players,

ds> Done, four times over. A player can choose Scrabble O, Scrabble I, Scrabble II, or Scrabble III, depending on how far into the realm of big words he's got the guts to go. By the way, would you be open to playing a game of duplicate Scrabble III with me on the telephone?

fb> playing via telephone is absurdly hard

ds> I do it all the time. It's great. I could see many players preferring duplicate Scrabble (with no luck element) to the conventional back and forth form.

fb> we're on two different perspectives that are irreconcilable because you want Scrabble to be a word game and it's just not

ds> That's what I've done; rehabilitate Scrabble as a full-fledged word game. And I think very few Scrabble players are really as anti-word as you purport to be. Even Word Freak recognizes a wistfulness for a more natural word game. For example: "Quaint as it seems," Larry Sherman posted, "many of us signed up for this cruise because we enjoy language." (page 235)

 


Contact Donald Sauter: send an email; view guestbook; sign guestbook.
Back to Donald Sauter's main page.
Back to the top of this page.

Helpful keywords not in the main text: word nerd - dispatches from the games, grammar, and geek underground. john d. williams jr. former executive director of the national scrabble association. hoity-toity p9.